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Derivation of Newtons form of Keplers 3rd law part 1

04/03/2014 by RhEvans

In 1619, Johannes Kepler published a relationship between how long a planet takes to orbit the Sun

and the size of that orbit, something we now call his 3rd law of planetary motion, or just Keplers 3rd

law. It states that

where is the period of the orbit and is the size of the orbit. Kepler also found that the planets

orbit the Sun in elliptical orbits (his 1st law), and so the size of the orbit that we refer to is actually

something called the semi-major axis, half the length of the long axis of an ellipse.

Any proportionality can be written as an equality if we introduce a constant, so we can write

where is our constant of proportionality.


Kepler found that the planets orbit the Sun in ellipses, with the Sun at one of the foci. The long axis of an
ellipse is called its major axis. The in Keplers 3rd law refers to the length of the semi-major axis of a
planets ellipse.

Newton was able to show in his Principia, published in 1687, that this law comes about as a natural

consequence of his laws of motion and his law of gravity. How can this be shown?

Why is Keplers law true?

To show how Keplers law comes from Newtons laws of motion and his law of gravitation, we will first

of all make two simplifying assumptions, to make the mathematics easier. First we will assume that

the orbits are circular, rather than elliptical. Secondly, we will assume that the Sun is at the centre of

a planets circular orbit. Neither of these assumptions is strictly true, but they will make the derivation

much simpler.

Newtons law of gravity states that the gravitational force between two bodies of masses is

given by

where is the distance between the two bodies and is a constant, known as Newtons universal

gravitational constant, usually called big G. In the case we are considering here, is of course the

radius of a planets circular orbit about the Sun.

When an object moves in a circle, even at a constant speed, it experiences an acceleration. This is

because the velocity is always changing, as the direction of the velocity vector is always changing,

even if its size is constant. From Newtons 2nd law, , which means if there is an acceleration

there must be a force causing it, and for circular motion this force is known as the centripetal force. It

is given by
where is the mass of the moving body, is its speed, and is the radius of the circular orbit. This

centripetal force in this case is provided by gravity, so we can say that

With a little bit of cancelling out we get

But the speed is given by the distance the body moves divided by the time it takes. For one full

circle this is just

where is the circumference of a circle and is the time it takes to complete one full orbit, its

period. Substituting this into equation (4) gives

Doing some re-arranging this gives


where we have substituted for . This, as you can see, is just Keplers 3rd law, with the constant of

proportionality found to be . So, Keplers 3rd law can be derived from Newtons laws

of motion and his law of gravity. The value of above is true if we express in metres and in

seconds. But, if we express in Astronomical Units and in Earth years, then actually comes out

to be 1!

Newtons form of Keplers 3rd law

A web search for Newtons form of Keplers 3rd law will turn up the following equation